It was an emotional afternoon Tuesday at the Women's Conference in California as a group of prominent women gathered for a special panel on grief, including Patrick Swayze's wife Lisa Niemi, who spoke publicly for the first time since her husband's death.
The panelists told the audience what lessons they had learned on the road from heartbreak to hope.
For Niemi, the panel -- part of the nation's largest women's leadership event -- marked the beginning of her healing. Her beloved husband died five weeks ago from pancreatic cancer.
"This is all new to me," she said. "I thought during the 22 months of my husband's illness that it gave me time to get used to the idea of losing him, and I found for myself when I actually got to that point I said, no, no, no. That wasn't the same at all, the actual loss is -- it's like an animal all on its own. It is almost like when the grief takes it, your body is not your own. "
One of the most difficult parts of Swayze's final days, she said, was dealing with the tabloid magazines that were on a death watch and "killing him off every week, every month."
"It was emotional cruelty," Niemi said. "When what you have is hope, you want to hang on to that hope."
"It was very demoralizing, because when someone is out in the universe, saying that on such a big level, you want all the positive vibes you can.
"My mother's death has brought me to my knees," she said. "I had feared it my entire life. I was terrified that when it happened I wouldn't be able to go on. In fact, I was sure of it. A life without my mother was and is unimaginable to me."
Healing With the Help of Others
Shriver confided to the crowd of 10,000 people that she'd felt her mother reach out to her, right after she'd died, through a nun.
"The woman looked at me right in the eye and she said your mother and the Virgin Mary sent me here to you. I burst into tears," said the California first lady.
While Elizabeth Edwards lost her 16-year-old son, Wade, in a car crash more than a decade ago, she said, "There are times that I dissolve still, to this day."
As she faces her own battle with cancer, she finds unexpected comfort knowing she will see him again.
"I have to believe that there is a chance of reunion of some sorts with Wade, and so death offers me that, which life can't offer me," she said.
Actress Susan St. James -- wife of NBC sports chairman Dick Ebersol -- says after her 14-year-old son, Teddy, died in a plane crash five years ago she found strength by looking at death in a different light.
"We are not human beings having this spiritual experience," she said. "We are spiritual begins having a human experience. And I could picture Teddy as a spiritual being, and then coming down on earth and having these 14 cool years and then going home."
But there are some steps she still can't take.
"I've never moved Teddy's clothes," she said. "It is five years, and I mean, I've never gone in his room, I go in and I dust it, but I've never moved his things."
The women bared their souls because they believe that confronting the pain and connecting with others helps the healing.
"Jackie O did just what our nation needed her to do," Edwards said. "She stood there and said she is going to be strong, and we are going to get through this, but it set an impossible standard. In truth what you feel like doing is wailing -- completely guttural, completely raw, completely full of pain, and we don't allow ourselves that."
"The best moment of grieving, and the thing that could move me on is that I could embrace Teddy finally in a way that was, he is my kid," St. James said. "They can take his body, but I own that boy. And I love that boy."
Niemi said connecting with others about grief just enriches the whole tapestry of life.
"It can help you much and anyone who is going through that lost I would encourage it, because even though you have to live with the sadness, it will add and enrich what you have and see that what you do have and that love and that connection is a beautiful thing."